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Civil Rights Part 3 – Unlawful Arrest

9th October 2017

This post will continue our in-depth look at some of the more common civil rights claims available to persons aggrieved by government wrongdoing. In our last post, we discussed the claims of excessive force, sometimes referred to as “police brutality”, in order to inform our readers on what those terms actually mean within the field of civil rights law.  In this post, we will focus on Fourth Amendment violations for unlawful arrest.

It may seem obvious what an unlawful arrest is, but under the law, “unlawful arrest” has a specific meaning. For example, an arrest may have been lawful even if the police arrested the wrong person entirely. Even if charges are dismissed, the person may not have a valid claim for “unlawful arrest”. We’ll explain why this is so in more detail below.

Unlawful Arrest

Claims that law enforcement have unlawfully arrested someone are properly characterized as invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees United States citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. It may come as a surprise to some, but an officer does not need a warrant to arrest a person in every instance. A warrantless arrest will not offend the Constitution so long as the arrest is supported by probable cause. Probable cause will exist when the totality of facts known at the time of the arrest would justify a reasonable person in believing that the individual arrested has committed or is committing a crime. This question is highly fact-dependent, and requires a court to look at all of the surrounding facts and circumstances available for consideration by an officer at the time of the arrest. The probable cause question is a question of law that is determined at the moment an arrest is made. Any later developed facts are irrelevant to the analysis. This means that later-discovered exculpatory evidence, say, a video showing that someone else committed the crime, is irrelevant to the probable cause question. What matters are the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the moment the decision to arrest is made.

The police are given a significant amount of protection – called “immunity” – from claims for arrests even where actual probable cause may be lacking. This is due to the fact that police enjoy protection in any case where they have “arguable” probable cause to arrest. The standard of arguable probable cause is less than the probable cause standard used in criminal prosecutions. When an officer is faced with conflicting information that cannot be immediately resolved, he or she may have arguable probable cause to arrest a suspect. This does not mean that an officer is free to disregard plainly exculpatory evidence, but it does mean that the police are afforded great deference for decisions they are required to make in the field with sometimes conflicting information.

A recent case out of St. Paul and decided by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals serves as a textbook example of how the arguable probable cause standard operates. In Hosea v. City of St. Paul, the undisputed facts known to the officers at the time of David Hosea’s arrest were as follows: someone from his residence called 911 and hung up; the officers heard a heated argument inside the residence while standing outside; upon entry the officers saw Hosea’s girlfriend, Jennifer Steines, crying on the couch; Hosea was yelling at Steines; Hosea was standing over Steines from only three feet away, obstructing the officers’ view of Steines; and Hosea did not immediately comply with the officers’ orders to get on the ground. On these observations, Hosea was arrested for domestic assault.

Hosea brought a civil rights claim against the officers for unlawful arrest. He argued that officers lacked probable cause to arrest him because they did not know why Steines was crying, and because the officers later learned that Steines was not in fear of immediate bodily harm (an element of the crime of domestic assault). Both of Hosea’s arguments failed. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that, without knowing why Steines was crying, a reasonable officer on the scene could have concluded that she placed the 911 call and was crying because Hosea made her fearful of imminent bodily harm. Second, noted the court, since arguable probable cause is determined at the time of arrest, the after-acquired knowledge regarding the victim’s lack of fear was irrelevant to the analysis. Thus, the officers had arguable probable cause to arrest Hosea for domestic assault, and were entitled to qualified immunity on Hosea’s unlawful arrest claim.

While unlawful arrest claims may be difficult in light of the protections afforded to the police, it does not mean they are impossible. Police officers are not free to ignore exculpatory evidence, nor are they free to forego the basics of police investigative work in a given case. The case law is clear that the police have a duty to conduct a reasonably thorough investigation prior to arresting a suspect, at least in the absence of an emergency. This does not mean that an officer must conduct a “mini-trial” before making an arrest, but an officer must engage in some degree of minimal investigation if the same might exonerate a suspect. In other words, a police officer may not “close his or her eyes” to facts that would help clarify the circumstances of an arrest.

Ultimately, the success of any unlawful arrest claim will depend significantly on the specific facts and circumstances presented.  Not every case is an obvious winner or loser, and many cases will fall into the camp where meritorious arguments may be made from either side. It never hurts to contact an attorney to find out whether you may have a claim. At Lundgren & Johnson, PSC, we offer no cost consultations to anyone in need of our services.